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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Whither Elonis?

Another SCOTUS opinion day (and possibly another opinion week) has passed and still no Elonis v. United States, the true threats case argued on December 1. It is all-but-certain that the Chief has the opinion (he is the only one who has not released a majority opinion from the December sitting), which instinctively leads me to believe that the petitioner is going to win. But what could be taking the Court so long? And does the six-month wait hint at anything?

Conversations with some First Amendment colleagues have me thinking that the opinion is potentially significant to current free speech controversies over "hate speech," such as racist speech on campus or the anti-Islam messages of AFDI, etc. These controversies have shown that incitement and fighting words as categories of unprotected speech have been so substantially narrowed as to not provide a meaningful check against hateful speech (which I obviously do not find problematic, but many people do). A broad conception of "true threats"--for example, if the threatening nature is defined by what a reasonable listener would conclude rather than what the speaker subjectively intended--potentially fills that gap. On that former conception, the hypothetical that some have proferred in which the Oklahoma SAE bus stopped in front of a Black fraternity and sang a line such "you can hang them from a tree" potentially becomes an unprotected true threat.

Speaking of expansive applications of true threats, this Slate piece by David Cohen (Drexel) and attorney Krysten Connon discusses the recent death and legacy of Neil Horsley. Horsley was the founder of the "Nuremberg Files" website, which published personal information about doctors who perform abortions; posted photos of doctors in "WANTED" posters and called for justice against abortion providers akin to the justice meted against the Nazis at Nuremberg; and tracked those who had been wounded (by graying out their names) or killed (by striking through their names). A divided en banc Ninth Circuit affirmed a multi-million dollar judgment in favor of Planned Parenthood, concluding that the web site did constitute a true threat of violence against abortion providers. The court applied a "reasonable speaker" test, which asked whether a reasonable speaker would foresee that those to whom the message was directed would interpret as a serious expression of intent to harm.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 26, 2015 at 11:58 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink

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